The sunny, low humidity 72 degree weather this past week wasn't the only refreshing thing in Chicago. A joint meeting of the American Planning Association (APA) Board of Directors, the leaders of APA's professional development arm, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), and senior APA staff provided a much needed breath of fresh air about our shared direction as an organization representing some 38,000 planners.

Lurie Gardens and Chicago Skyline
Lurie Gardens and Chicago Skyline

With new APA Executive Director Jim Drinan on the job for barely two weeks and several new Board and AICP Commission members starting their tenure, the 3-day retreat focused on a future full of positive change and possibilities for excellence in service to members and the profession. It was the most open and productive series of meetings I've had in almost 15 years of involvement in APA leadership. The conversation was so free, enterprising and passionate, you could hardly call what we had "meetings."

The retreat led to an easy consensus around specific priorities and near-term actions designed to make visible and lasting progress in transforming the culture of the APA. Here are my 7 takeaways from the discussions that bode well for all of our members and the planning profession:


1. An Openness to New Ideas and Experimentation

APA Board, AICP Commission and staff working on a new direction for the association.
APA Board, AICP Commission and staff working on a new direction for the association.

For an organization dedicated to thinking about the future, APA has often been stuck in convention and the ways of the past. While there is much good work to build upon, I was heartened by a collective willingness to rethink past approaches to everything from the structure of the National Planning Conference, the mission and roles of various entities within APA like the Chapter Presidents Council and Divisions Council, and the way we plan, operate, fund, budget, and evaluate our various initiatives.

2. A Focus on Agility and Responsiveness

This covers a broad range of topics, such as re-thinking member programs and products, improving our use of technology, and shortening the length of time it takes to develop and communicate policy and best practices guidance. Being nimble, strategic and engaged in emerging approaches will drive our efforts going forward, including a focus on sharing information that shapes decisions and outcomes clearly and quickly with our leaders and members.

3. A Clarity of Mission, Roles and Responsibilities

APA needs to do more to empower its various component groups to share in the leadership of the organization, shape our future endeavors and serve the professional needs of members. That starts with a clear vision, perhaps a longer term Development Plan, and well-defined objectives for which effectiveness is regularly evaluated, and more specificity on expectations of how each entity within APA - chapters, divisions, students, the academy, AICP, etc. can advance our mission.

4. A Spirit of Collegiality and Collaboration

APA Board members Kurt Christiansen, Carol Rhea and Denise McCormick review the day's discussion outside APA's Chicago offices.
APA Board members Kurt Christiansen, Carol Rhea and Denise McCormick review the day's discussion outside APA's Chicago offices.

The retreat signified a true departure from experience with a wide-open, wide-ranging and positive discussion between Board, Commission and staff. APA has an incredibly talented and creative staff that is eager to take on new activities and improve member services and work products. It was refreshing to have staff fully engaged in every activity as contributing partners in moving the organization forward. That attitude and spirit will flow from leadership and senior staff throughout the organization and its members.

5. Commitment to Transparency and Excellence in Communication

Inward and outward communication efforts have been a trouble spot for APA. From the ability to understand budgets and the operations of the APA Foundation to the performance of various user programs and how we tell the story of planning successes to meet current and emerging issues in the profession, there was clear consensus and a commitment from senior staff to simplify, clarify and create more compelling ways of communicating with our leaders, members and external audiences.

6. Cultivate Stronger Partnerships That Elevate the Profession

The competitiveness, ego and construction of silos that sometimes affected relationships has no place in today's APA. As planners, our mission is to integrate and collaborate among disciplines, experiences and perspectives. The way we run our association should be no different. We have much to learn and share from our affiliations with the academy, other organizations with shared objectives, and those who do not always agree with our goals and methods.

7. Improve the Link Between Planning Education and Research to Practice

The world is changing rapidly, and so is the need to provide the education, training and research that helps planners succeed in new areas of practice and in demonstrating the effectiveness of new methods and strategies. Linking research to our policy initiatives and in support of our advocacy messages is a no-brainer, and that requires a strengthened collaboration with planning educators and researchers.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding. APA must now deliver on those goals in ways that are meaningful and effective. The changes won't happen overnight, but we are finally having the discussions and engaging in the steps that will enable APA to be the organization and resource that our members, their colleagues, their communities and our world needs today and in the future. It's a new day for APA and I am excited about our prospects.

–Whit Blanton, Cities That Work Blog

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